Thursday, 24 February 2011

First Floods, then Cyclones, now Bushfires: What Next for Australia?

Expats in Australia will remember this summer mainly for nature wreaking absolute havoc across the country.

It began in the second week of the new year with the devastating floods that saturated large parts of Queensland, including the heart of the city of Brisbane, swamping scores of towns and taking lives in one of Australia's most expensive natural disasters on record. More than 500,000 square kilometres of the state, including 86 towns and cities, were ultimately affected by the flooding and more than two million people found themselves living in areas declared disaster zones.

A devastating year for Queenslanders. Photo: Jamie Hanson/Newspix/Rex Features

While Queensland was still reeling from January's devastating floods, the far north of the state was hit by a second natural disaster in the form of tropical cyclone Yasi, which smashed into the Australian east coast early on February 2. The monster cyclone, which crossed the coast between the towns of Innisfail and Cardwell, brought screaming winds and torrential rain to the region but, thankfully, lost some of its ferocious power as it made landfall in the early hours of the morning.

In the week that followed the aftermath of Yasi, Australia was struck by yet another disaster as bush fires raged out of control around Perth and razed homes to the east and north of the city. People were taken to hospital with smoke inhalation, large numbers were evacuated from their homes, and local fire services struggled to keep the fires under control in strong and often unpredictable winds.

Meanwhile, Sydney sweltered in a record-breaking heat wave with seven days of temperatures above 30 degrees in the city. The heavily populated suburbs to the west of Sydney endured more than eight days of 35 degrees and above, often reaching temperatures in the low 40s during the day and in the high 20s overnight.

As the country received yet more punishment at the hands of Mother Nature, it begged the question of this expat Down Under: just what was in store next?

While waiting for the next act to commence in this grisly summer performance, I realised that I was fast becoming anaesthetised to each crisis unfolding before my eyes.

As the latest disaster played out, I realised I had become more and more detached from the obvious day-to-day horror experienced on the ground as I took each crisis for granted and in my stride – why, it was just another Australian natural disaster after all, an almost annual occurrence in this part of the world. These catastrophic events made for addictive TV but I wasn’t connecting on any level with the scenes taking place in front of me. These were parts of Australia I’d never been to, people I’d never met, and extreme natural disasters the likes of which I had never encountered back in mild, safe England.

I simply couldn’t comprehend the danger and hardship that these people were enduring on a regular basis and, as harsh as it may sound, the images on the television remained just that - images of events seemingly far away and of no real concern or threat to my wellbeing.

Fully expecting to hear news of yet another natural phenomenon to strike the mainland, I received a late night phone call advising that my wife’s grandmother was being evacuated from her waterfront apartment, which happened to be situated in the direct path of Cyclone Yasi as it advanced on the city. Only then did the reality of this abnormal situation hit home as we waited for several hours through the night wondering if she had made it to a safer place.

This personal experience brought home the fact that there were regular, everyday people out there facing the full force of these torrential storms, raging flood waters or burning forests. Real people who had not been able to escape whatever catastrophe was coming their way, enduring individual horror and heartbreak in the midst of untold chaos and destruction, fighting simply to survive.

The pictures on television told these individual stories in real-time and I found myself glued to the television over the coming weeks, following these plucky Australians up and down the country as, time and time again, survivors told of dealing with their own nightmare situations, how they picked themselves back up off the ground and fought on against the uncontrollable carnage consuming their local environment.

Flash flooding in Toowoomba, Queensland

Thankfully my wife’s grandmother was evacuated in good time but many were not so fortunate as the floods and storms claimed too many lives in a summer memorable for all the wrong reasons. There was much talk of the Aussie strength of spirit as townspeople beat the odds and hit back against adversity, of the strong bonds of "mateship" shining through in each and every instance.

These stories sounded familiar to me from another time and place. I felt that I knew these reports of innocent passers-by caught up in terrible situations, of strangers stopping to save a neighbour from imminent danger, of affected people returning to their lives in the aftermath of such horrid events, unswerving and single-minded in their determination to get back to normality as quickly as possible. It reminded me of the underlying character that defines a place and a people. It reminded me of my homeland, of my own people, and I now saw it again through my new expat eyes in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, and across the whole of Australia.

In those early weeks of January and February, I found it far too easy to watch one disaster after the other with a blasé attitude to the danger and no resultant connection to the people. I always thought myself respectful of this country and connected with Australians, yet the lesson I learned in those short weeks was that, in taking both for granted, I forgot my place as an expat and briefly lost my way as a new citizen.

This appeared in The Telegraph's Expat Life section on 18 February 2011 -

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Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Battle to Protect Canada's Pacific Coast

On this journey of ours, we left Canada's west coast almost 6 years ago.  Although we now call Australia home, British Columbia will always hold a very special place in our hearts. In fact, we'll be returning there in March 2011 for a much-needed vacation and BC fix.

I was recently made aware of a battle underway in the area. A battle to protect the breathtaking coast of the Pacific North West from a potentially terrible blight on this land.

The Great Bear Rainforest, on BC's north and central Pacific coast, is the last great untouched region of Canadian wilderness and is one of the largest intact tracts of temperate rainforest left in the world. Representing one quarter of the world's remaining coastal temperate rainforest, the Great Bear Rainforest stretches along the mainland coast of BC to the Alaska border, covering an area the size of Switzerland.
The Great Bear Rainforest

The Rainforest takes its name from the grizzly bears, black bears and Kermode (Spirit) bears that live there and has one of the highest concentrations of coastal grizzly bear populations on North America's west coast. An ecological treasure, it is also home to large numbers of humpback whales, wild salmon, wolves, deer, northern goshawks and mountain goats.

This truly spectacular place is now threatened by a proposal from a Canadian company, Enbridge, which plans to bring an oil pipeline and supertankers to this fragile coast. Enbridge is hoping to put in place an extensive operation that will allow the pumping of more than half a million barrels of unrefined bitumen from the Alberta Tar Sands, over the Rockies, and through the heartland of BC every single day.

This oil will cross a thousand pristine rivers and streams along the way, eventually arriving in the Port of Kitimat deep in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. From Kitimat, enormous supertankers will attempt to navigate the rough, treacherous and extremely narrow waterways of the BC coast, en route to Asia and the United States.

This unfathomable project has been dubbed the Northern Gateway Pipeline and organisations such as PacificWild and the Sierra Club of BC are most concerned for the following key reasons:
  1. It would facilitate the expansion of the Tar Sands, hooking emerging Asian economies on the world's dirtiest oil.
  2. The risks from the pipeline to the natural environment.
  3. The danger of introducing significant oil supertanker traffic for the first time to this part of the BC coast.
It's not hard to see how this magnificent rainforest is now threatened by the developments proposed by Enbridge - and not necessarily opposed by the various levels of Canadian government. This incredible environment is at risk and I, for one, am keen to raise awareness of the issue and hopefully contribute to the protection of this West Canadian coast and stop Enbridge building this pipeline.

In my relatively short time in Australia, I've already seen how a coal-carrying transport ship crossing the Great Barrier Reef can easily cause an environmental nightmare after the ship ran aground, leaking oil on the Reef and facing the distinct possibility of breaking apart.

I'd therefore encourage you to watch the video below to learn more about the potential and irreversible disasters facing the region if this project goes ahead. The video is approximately 17 minutes long and is well worth watching, if not just to see the spectacular scenery of this part of the BC coast. You can also click on the link below if you'd prefer to watch the video directly on You Tube or alternatively go to the website of PacificWild or the Sierra Club of BC for more information on supporting this worthy cause.

British Columbia really is one of the best places on earth. We should try to keep it that way.

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Monday, 7 February 2011

How Hot is Too Hot?

I've lived in some pretty extreme climates over the past 8 years. 

Although England was relatively mild and Vancouver was damp and drizzly, Ottawa was downright frigid in winter and high in the humidity stakes over the short summer months.

This week, Sydney became one of the hottest places on earth, according to the national and international weather forecasts, with a sweltering seven day heatwave that smashed records as the city endured a week of temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius (and averaging 40 degrees plus). Tuesday peaked at more than 45 degrees at midday in some areas of the city, whilst on Saturday night the temperature hovered around 30 degrees. 

A typical daily temperature reading in the car this week

Uncomfortably hot throughout the week, 'locals' resorted to using umbrellas to protect themselves from the blistering rays of the Aussie sun, air conditioners worked overtime in offices across Sydney, and sleep deprivation became the norm as residents twisted and turned in their beds, unpleasantly overheated and soaked in sweat.

My past four years of summers in Sydney have generally ranged from fairly warm to stinking hot, and I've come to see myself as someone who relishes this extraordinarily extreme environment. In fact, prior to this week's heatwave, it occurred to me that I might even be growing immune to the kind of intense weather found here in Australia or, at the other end of the temperature spectrum, overseas in Canada.

Whilst I might once have sat through an English heatwave and whinged about the third day of 25 degree temps and the endless summer sun, I now bask in a much hotter, lengthier summer season and smile when I hear similar complaints from friends and family back in Blighty. I now live in a country where the summer is hardcore, where the potential for heat exhaustion and over-exposure is a given, and where forgetting to 'slip, slop, slap' can be the difference between an enjoyable day out at the beach or a night spent in the local hospital's burns unit.

Yet for all my supposed immunity to, and tolerance of, these long, hot Australian summers, this week proved to be a bit of a wake-up call. As we bunkered down in our house on a daily basis with the air conditioning cranked up to the maximum but with little effect and blinds drawn tightly to a close, my little vegetable patch all but died in the garden and any grass we had burned to a crisp. Poor Milo didn't move from the cold slate tiles in the hallway and we only braved the hot winds and humid air when absolutely necessary. The feeling of breathing in hot, scalding air with the sun practically burning skin upon contact was a thing of nightmares. We could do nothing but hide away from the heat in our shrunken little world, as I acknowledged that maybe I wasn't quite so immune to these 'extremes' after all.

The most extreme experience of the week took the form of a new fun run on the Northern Beaches starting at a surely cooler and more comfortable time of 6.45am. As the starter's gun went off, I found myself running the hilly and exposed 7km course in temperatures in excess of 30 degrees. I witnessed runners overcome by the heat collapse at the side of the road with St John's Ambulance staff in attendance and the only thought running through my head was how to determine the point at which I should get off the shadeless road and out of the sun's unforgiving path.

As I finished the race to the sound of the event organiser announcing that the day's conditions were "perfect summer weather for a fun run", it dawned on me that the morning heat had entirely humbled me. If someone was to ask how hot is too hot, the answer would almost certainly be today.

Average February heat across Australia

A cool and very welcome southerly wind eventually blew through the region on Sunday plunging the temperature from a fiery 32 degrees to a more pleasant 18 degrees in one afternoon. Upon announcing details of the excessively high temperatures, to my amusement both friends and family from the UK and Canada all told me how they would rather be in Sydney enjoying the 45 degree heat rather than in the cold northern hemisphere winter. It occurred to me how it must be impossible to fully comprehend and understand the impact of this week's heatwave from afar if never having lived here or experienced the fury of an Australian summer before.

And that's what this was...  an experience, albeit an extreme one. As with all the experiences we've had on this journey of ours, we sit back and appreciate the uniqueness of the moment. And I'll continue to enjoy these 'moments' as long as they remain just that, because the problem is that now I've lived in extreme heat and extreme cold, my tolerance of these 'extremes' is all but used up.

So I have a good idea. In the future I'd prefer a little less of both and a bit more balance between the two.

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